Cold term cannot disappear central experience of pregnancy and birth
Gestational carrier is an ugly term
THE objectification of women’s bodies and commodification of childbirth came together yesterday in a single antiseptic phrase contained in the announcement of a second child for actress Nicole Kidman and her musician husband Keith Urban.
The baby’s birth three weeks ago took even dedicated “Our Nic” watchers by surprise, including Woman’s Day which had the couple adopting a Haitian child.
“Our family is truly blessed . . . to have been given the gift of baby Faith Margaret. No words can adequately convey the incredible gratitude that we feel for everyone who was so supportive throughout this process, in particular our gestational carrier.”
In those last two words, the woman whose body nurtured this child for nine months is stripped of humanity. The phrase is reminiscent of other terms popular in the global baby-production industry, such as suitcase, baby capsule, oven and incubator.
The detached language views women as disposable uteruses. This dismantling of motherhood denies the psychological and physiological bonds at the heart of pregnancy.
The euphemisms soothe: don’t worry, there is no mother whose voice the baby hears, no mother whose blood carries nutrients to the developing child, whose heart the child hears. No mother feeling first kicks, whose breasts swell, whose entire body and mind prepare for her arrival.
US ethicist Wesley Smith said he was reminded of “Dune’s ‘axlotl tanks’, which are women who are lobotomised and then their bodies used as gestational carriers for clones.”
But doctors prefer it.
On Australia Talks Back, November 9, 2009, Canberra IVF specialist Martyn Stafford-Bell said “gestational carrier pregnancy” was the preferred term.
Surrogacy was a good solution for women “unable to house a pregnancy” and a woman carrying a child with no genetic connection understood “she is, in fact, an incubator”. Some surrogate mothers use these terms to distance, because surrogacy erodes the inherent maternal-fetal relationship.
“I am strictly a hotel,” one said.
Donna Hill, who experienced a toxemic pregnancy followed by a traumatic induced labour which she hoped to forget, said, “I told myself I was just an incubator. I was just going into an operation and not giving birth.”
Sydney surrogate mother Shona Ryan told a Canberra conference: “I had to forget I was pregnant. There was not the same joy and wonderment. In some ways I felt sorry for this baby that it didn’t receive the same attention [as my others]. I had to deny the pleasures of pregnancy.”
After the birth: “My subconscious, my body, my emotions, knew I’d given birth and were screaming out for that baby. I kept having the urge to tell people, ‘I’ve had a baby!’
“The personal cost to me and my family [was too high]. I came to the conclusion I couldn’t recommend surrogacy to anyone.”
Of course the birth of any baby is worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid hard questions about the fragmentation of motherhood, about a child who may wonder about their birth mother and why she is not raising them.
We can’t keep our Eyes Wide Shut about the exploitation of women in countries such as India where a booming surrogacy industry, described as womb slavery, attracts rich foreigners. And questions need to be asked more broadly about the global trade in the use of gametes in a range of reproductive procedures.
The Daily Mail recently ran “The brutal fertility factories trading in British mothers’ dreams” to describe vulnerable women trading in the only valuable thing they possessed: their fertility.
In the US commodification of a child knows few limits. Journalist Bill Wyndham, pretending to be a single, HIV-positive gay man, was told by a surrogacy company he’d make a perfect dad.
He was, however, not allowed to adopt a puppy from the dog pound.
We don’t know the background of the surrogate mother. Was she a student trying to pay off college loans? Had she given birth for other couples? Did she have the option of changing her mind? Will there be any future contact between the mother and child? Does she have other children who are asking where the new baby went?
Some women have been unable to relinquish. Mary Beth Whitehead, US surrogate mother in the famous Baby M case, said: “Something took over. I think it was just being a mother.”
Jane Smith from Sydney said of the son she carried: “I couldn’t let him go.”
Another surrogate mother has said: “In the beginning it is easy to see things in an unrealistic way. When there is no real baby, it is easy to be idealistic.”
In 1997 a baby called “Evelyn” became Australia’s first litigated surrogacy case when her surrogate mother couldn’t give her up.
The raft of celebrities hiring out surrogates to have babies for them has became almost a modern day form of wet nursing.
But the lack of objective evidence about the long-term impact of surrogacy on the surrogate mothers, the children and the families of the commissioning parents is concerning.
The process of pregnancy, labour and delivery followed by summoning extraordinary reserves of strength to surrender that baby, cannot be reduced to the science fiction that the woman who does all this is merely a “gestational carrier”.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, commentator, and blogger (www.melindatankardreist.com).
Article online here.